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Looking Back In Anger

When you read this I will be a year older than I was when I wrote it. And the birthday I'll be celebrating is a very important one. I'll be twice as old as the minimum age of people you can trust.

When I was a youth, we had a saying: you should never trust anyone over thirty. We all knew that the old people, the generations that preceded us, had screwed things up. They didn't care about the state of the world; they were too inward looking, too self-obsessed and too selfish. They'd never had it so good – the Prime Minister told them that in 1957, so they knew it was true. And the sad thing was that once upon a time they'd been just like us, only somehow, as the years passed, they seemed to have forgotten what it used to be like.

Eerie music and wavy lines...

In England in the 1930s, all right thinking students were thinking left. As Europe descended into fascism, the political left wing seemed like the only remaining hope for the freedom of the world. At its core was an idealism that promoted the greatest good of the greatest number. It's very hard to resist a seductive mantra like "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." People who had never worked in their lives made speeches in support of the working class.

There was a very romantic war going on just across the channel and a significantly large number of intellectual Englishmen put their principles in their pockets and, thus armed, went over to Spain to fight the good fight against Franco. Some of them survived; an even smaller number survived with their ideals intact.

Universities are supposed to be hotbeds of intellectual discussion. It's one of their main reasons for existing. In the 1930s, the sense of commitment to idealism that arose in the student body stopped being just an intellectual exercise. It trickled over into reality and it became a lifestyle choice. Given the zeitgeist, it's not hard to understand why the KGB found it so easy to recruit Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt. But it's much less easy to understand why those people's commitment to the Soviets lasted a lifetime. Experience suggests that all too often youthful idealism degenerates into worldly cynicism. Somebody (good guesses are Chesterton, Churchill or Shaw but nobody is really sure) once said: "If a man is not a socialist when he is 20 he has no heart. If he is still a socialist when he is 40, he has no head."

But all too many people of that generation proved that cynical observation to be wrong. Sometimes idealism can survive and even flourish. It's a hopeful sign.

At the same time, across the pond, America was also experimenting with radicalism at both the left and right ends of the political spectrum – though unlike England, the impetus for it was not coming from the universities. The depression hit America much harder than any other country. It affected everyone in every class of society and it was a great wake up call. There was a general acceptance on all sides that Something Needed To Be Done! Furthermore, the potential revolutionaries had two brand new tools with which to promulgate their propaganda: radio and the mimeograph, tools which opened the door to almost every household in the country. By the mid 1930s a considerable number of ordinary Americans were at least nominally communist and the left wing was stronger than it had ever been before.

The journalist John Reed had actually witnessed the 1917 Russian Revolution and he came home fired with enthusiasm for the promise of Soviet style socialism. Reed and his colleagues preached their message so successfully that it even began to seem as though America too might have a revolution of its own.

Reed died of typhus in Moscow in 1920 and the Soviets gave him a hero's funeral. He was buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis where he was later joined by Stalin, and similar luminaries. Even in death, he remained an influential figurehead in radical American politics. In 1981, Warren Beatty played the part of John Reed in a Hollywood biopic.

Meanwhile, at the other extreme, big business was pushing hard towards the right and by 1935, the fascist influence was making huge progress thanks largely to the efforts of Henry Ford and other business magnates who thought that what Hitler was doing with Germany was just absolutely the cat's pyjamas.

Indeed, by the beginning of World War II, the Ford Motor Company was actually manufacturing tanks for the German Army in the same Detroit factories that it was using for making civilian vehicles for sale to Americans. At one point, Ford even threatened to shut down his company's contributions to the war effort if he wasn't allowed to continue to help his best friend Adolf as well.

There were good reasons why Woodie Guthrie used his guitar to kill fascists. A lot of them needed killing.

The furore died down in England in the 1940s and 1950s. The young people of those decades seemed to shun intellectual discussion. There was a hardness in them and anyway, their world lacked any deep causes with which to get involved (except for a small number of duffle coats who pursued a campaign for nuclear disarmament). By and large, students just went back to just being students again, doing the normal student things. They got drunk and stole policemen's helmets. They lived what were often shallow and superficial lives under the twin stimuli of post-war austerity, and the grim sword of Damocles of National Service that hung over everyone's head. Have fun while you still can was the message of the day. The time you have left to you is all too short. Screw you Jack, I'm alright. Time to party! They were grim, grey years, intensely conservative, and everyone was very determined to preserve a status quo that almost nobody felt able to argue against.

In 1950s America, a weak and incompetent president handed control of the country over to the twin tyrannies of Hoover and McCarthy. Even the slightest trace of non-conformity was labelled communist and un-American and it was ruthlessly suppressed. Lives were, quite literally, ruined and lost. The radical left essentially vanished as the country dived back into its hole and pulled the hole in after itself. Like the British, the Americans had an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo again. They knew they were living in the best of all possible worlds.

Eerie music and wavy lines...

But by the late 1960s, the cracks were starting to show. My generation of students was re-opening the debate about social and political values and the status quo was starting to look flimsy. This time the driving force of the movement was centred in America. There was pressure from above sparked by the perceived corruption of the people in charge of the government and there was pressure from below as the disenfranchised grew more and more dissatisfied with their lot. Something had to give.

Like the students of the 1930s, we had a foreign war to measure ourselves against, but there was nothing romantic about Vietnam and the daily images on our television screens were sickening. It began to seem to us as if the political left wing was the only one that cared at all about the people who were suffering in South East Asia. We questioned the motives of the movers and the shakers of the world. Their specious self-justifications were patently absurd. Indeed, we later learned that the event which more than anything else persuaded America to escalate the war (the so-called Gulf Of Tonkin incident) never even took place! Why did so many people have to die so cruelly for something that had never happened, in pursuit of dubious political aims? Did nobody care about all those lives? It seemed not.

Kennedy and Johnson and (later) Nixon were cynical men with selfish agendas that had to be paid for in blood. They seemed to take a perverse joy in the perceived necessity of their actions. There was something corrupt in Camelot and the stink of it was foul in our nostrils.

The revolution began in Berkeley as so many things did in those days, but it quickly spread throughout the country and throughout the Western world. And while the protest against the Vietnam war was always a rallying cry for the movement, it also took to other causes, not least the vicious racial apartheid that split American society in two.

And so Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin wrote angry books and they led protest marches to keep their philosophy in the public mind. The Weathermen, extremely articulate and charismatic radicals with a surprising and very refreshing sense of humour, amused themselves by blowing up government buildings and banks in celebration of inexcusable political and humanitarian screw ups such as the invasion of Laos and the bombing of Hanoi. Meanwhile the Black Panthers threatened armed revolution and they hung around on street corners looking menacing in their dark glasses and berets.

America was teetering on the edge of anarchy.

We had no direct involvement in any of this in England. There were no British troops in Vietnam (that's not quite true, but it's close enough to the truth not to matter) and, compared to America, we had no racial problems at all and no tradition of discrimination – at least not enshrined in legislation. America had racially divisive laws, racially segregated schools, restaurants, buses, trains and toilets. We had no such laws. But nevertheless it was clear to me and to the majority of my contemporaries that the anti-war movement and the agitation for social equality without racism were ideals greatly to be desired.

And so we marched and we picketed and we sat down in support of our left pondian colleagues. We stole Abbie Hoffman's book, just like he told us to. Did we actually make any difference? I don't know, but I like to think that we did.

And then, for a short while, it seemed that we had won. The war ended, civil rights legislation was passed. The movement died. Jerry Rubin became a stockbroker and one of the Weathermen bought a bar in New York and won a pile of money on a television quiz show. They all became part of the establishment; they all became the kind of people they'd spent their lives telling us not to trust.


But worse than that – students stopped thinking again. The left wing vanished from the intellectual world again; criticism and the questioning of the people in charge simply stopped happening. A black curtain descended over the radical freaks on both sides of the pond, and they disappeared from view.

Eerie lines and wavy music...

There has been a very visible change in the attitude of students on campus. Their motivations for coming to university in the first place are very different from the motivations that I had. Students today generally study subjects that they hope will help to get them a career. Often they have very little interest in the ideas that are presented to them. Study is regarded as only a means to a very practical and rather short sighted end: employment.

I find this attitude impossible to understand – I went to university so that I could postpone the evil day of having to get a job for a few more years, and the only reason I studied the subject I was majoring in was because I found it interesting, not because I felt it would help in the employment rat race. Indeed, as it happened, I ended up making a career in an area that had no connection whatsoever with my degree speciality. I simply cannot imagine the soul searing boredom that must accompany the in-depth study of things that are intrinsically dull to the student, but nevertheless today that seems to be the norm.

And because the central goal is (ultimately) to score a career based on good grades, the students tend to pursue those grades not through intellectual appreciation of the subject (they don't care enough about it for that) but by being spoon fed "right answers" (whatever that means) from their tutors. A friend of mine who lectures at university is almost in despair at the impossibility of getting any original ideas out of his students. Again and again and again they ask him what he wants them to say in their assignments. They want him to tell them the answers so that they can write them down in the papers they present, and no matter how many times he tells them that he wants them to express their own opinions (and justify them, of course) they simply refuse to do so – mainly, I suspect, because they don't have any opinions; the subjects are too dull to excite their brains.

Assuming that they actually have any brains, of course.

These people are supposed to be the intellectual elite (how else can you get into university, for goodness sake). Nevertheless the stultification engendered by the lack of involvement in their chosen subjects seems to extend into all other fields of endeavour as well. Their brains just turn off no matter what the subject in front of them. They seem to have a basic lack of curiosity about the world and a total inability to comprehend the things that make it tick. When all your depth is in shallow places, you lose track of the complexity of real life; you lose the ability to follow (sometimes convoluted) arguments about its workings and so you cannot draw conclusions of your own. You look for the right answers from an authority figure instead and if you get them, all you then have to do is regurgitate them when challenged.

Thinking hurts. So let someone else do it for you. That way you avoid the pain. Eventually you simply stop thinking altogether and, because you are no longer using the skill, it atrophies, withers and dies.

I would be willing to bet that a significantly large number of the students at university today are (for example) quite unable to understand the political arguments put forward in newspaper editorials – indeed they probably don't even know what an editorial is, because they never read newspapers anyway! And not only can they not understand such things, they don't really care about them either.

Too hard!


For those of you who aren't up to date with these things, the initials TL;DR stand for "Too Long; Didn't Read" and it's a standard comment posted by internauts who exhibit all the attention span of a wood louse whenever they are faced with any piece of prose longer than a couple of sentences. None of them would even attempt to read this essay that you are reading now, for example. And that intellectual laziness is typically symptomatic of the things I am discussing here.

The students drift, blown hither and yon by winds of circumstance. They don't feel deeply about anything substantial; the war in Iraq, global warming, the appalling human rights violations committed every day by both the American and British governments – these things just pass them by. They probably don't even know that the events are taking place, and they certainly don't care. This general dumbing down of their universe of discourse means that, quite routinely, they ignore things that would have made my generation riot in the streets.

And so the movers and the shakers of the world now find themselves in a position where they can just walk all over everybody without recrimination, no matter how egregiously they sin. They feed the people shit and sugar, and the people lie back and eat it; they don't seem to know any better.

They make me despair.

Today I am one of the old farts. When my generation were young we asked to be given the world so that we could fix all the broken bits. Well – time passed and they gave us the world, but we didn't fix it. Instead we screwed it up just as badly as the generation that we once condemned for that very sin. So why aren't the youth of today condemning us for it? Why aren't they actively trying to get rid of us as they have every right to do?

Because they are too dumb to realise just how badly we screwed them over and just what a mess they will inherit when their own time comes.

Call me a cynic if you like, but today I'd change just one word in the mantra that guided my generation. Today, in my opinion, you should never trust anyone under thirty.


I'd like to thank James Finley, a work colleague with whom I had several very interesting and stimulating conversations which sparked the train of thought that led to this essay. Thanks also to Paul Riddell who showed me that American Radical Politics was not the oxymoron I'd always thought it to be.

This is one of the hardest things I've ever written and I've been struggling with it for several months. I shudder to think how many drafts it has gone through. Both James and Paul contributed a lot to the final structure, but of course I take full responsibility for any errors of fact that may remain and the (sometimes outrageous) opinions expressed here are purely my own.

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